by Jean Parker

Sri Lanka is hot. It’s not exactly the kind of suffocating heat you have to push aside when you want to go somewhere, but almost. Signs of the 30-year civil war and its resulting deprivation are everywhere; it hangs like a dark shadow over everything and everybody. It’s one of those wars most people don’t know about. It remains on the edge of the horizon for most folks unless they happen to live inside it. Those who do live there know that their island country of 20 million people located just off the coast of South India is small, poor and struggling for survival. Government funds that should be allocated to education and social advancement are diverted to fund the war – including funds for the blind. Most blind people have no rehabilitation or training, and therefore, few prospects for employment or economic and political power.

The best, brightest and the lucky ones have left Sri Lanka to search for a better life somewhere else, taking with them creativity, innovation and money. Those who remain hope for better days.

Given this reality, the January 10th celebration of the 200th birthday of Louis Braille was remarkable, demonstrating the strength and commitment of participants in the face of overwhelming barriers. About 40 enthusiastic blind people gathered in an auditorium outside Sri Lanka’s capitol, Colombo. The event was sponsored by the Blind Citizens' Front of Sri Lanka with help from the local Lions, and included contests in reading and writing Braille, plus extemporaneous speaking about the importance of Louis Braille and his accomplishments. Michael Jayasiri is the founder of the organization. He says about 15 percent of blind people in Sri Lanka read braille.

“Sri Lanka, we are told, is proud of a very high literacy rate. But when we compare this figure with the literacy rate of blind people in this country, the percentage is very low. We believe, therefore, that our problem is mass illiteracy.”

Promoting braille is the primary activity of the Blind Citizens' Front. The celebration honoring Louis Braille is held every year. Contest winners get small amounts of cash for demonstrating speed and accuracy in writing braille, fluency in reading aloud and imagination in explaining what braille means to them individually, and to blind people as a whole. Most of the winners say they will use the money to buy essentials like food and clothing for their families.

Many participants sell lottery tickets or work in factories. A few are teachers, many in schools for the blind and a few in schools for sighted people. Getting together like this doesn’t happen that often so they enjoy each other’s company when they do. Moving around is difficult; the police checkpoints are endless, causing anxiety, delays and cancellations. Buses and trains are a favorite target of suicide bombers, exposing those riding public transport, blind and sighted alike, to an increased amount of violence and uncertainty. It’s the randomness of it that keeps people on edge.

Jayasiri says after so many years of this heightened insecurity, the crime rate in the country is out of control. He says that violence has become the mindset of the people. Robberies, housebreaks, and reports of kidnaps and disappearances are commonplace. No one feels safe, blind or sighted, and this is holding everyone back, but especially the blind. He says organizing in the blind community is hard too, mostly due to the war in the north, and political tensions in the rest of the country.

“Before 2005 there were blind organizations in the north. But when the war started, we lost contact with the organizations of Tamil people in the north. We have no news of them; we cannot even write letters to them, we do not know where they are. I know that some are in refugee camps, and some have left the island. The blind people, they are unable to organize themselves, so they are mainly interested in survival. They go to the refugee camps and just stay there.”

Following reports about the conditions in the refugee camps, the unpredictable displacement of the population in the north and the complete disregard for human rights by all sides of the war, one can only imagine what has happened to them.

After the contest, Jayasiri goes home to write. He, his wife Swarna, and two other blind people write the organization's monthly magazine, every copy, by hand! There are no Braille writers, no computers attached to Braille embossers. Every page of the 145 copies produced each month is written using slates and styli!

Jayasiri explains that the paper is donated by a group in Australia. He estimates that 5,000 to 6,000 people actually read the 14-page magazine as people pass it along to others. Over 1,000 people are on the waiting list. It is also the only braille magazine in the Sinhala language published regularly in the world! This is especially important because English is being taught less in Sri Lanka’s schools than in the past.

“We publish stories from the newspapers and from the radio, and we get contributions from our readers, and we sometimes translate articles from the Braille Forum which our readers really appreciate reading, and we keep our readers up to date with any release from the Parliament that has any impact on the lives of blind people.”

The magazine began as a newsletter. But in 1990, the International Year of Literacy, readers demanded an expanded publication, and the magazine has been published every month ever since.

Jayasiri says, “When you can read and write your own language, and communicate, that is literacy. With literacy comes the possibility of freedom. With freedom comes the possibility of endless achievement, from pleasant living to significant social contributions.”

In a two-room rented house near the capitol, Shiawati and her husband are regular readers of the magazine. They also contribute their own essays and poems for others to read. Being literate in Braille is important to them. Both of them sell lottery tickets in a nearby food store. They sell about 200 tickets a day and use Braille to keep track of the winning numbers.

Seven people share the two rooms including their young son, Shiawati’s mother, sister, brother-in-law and their children. They say they would like to have a place of their own but they would have to make twice their current earnings to afford it.

Jayasiri’s office is a small room added on to his concrete house containing one table that serves as a desk, two chairs and a worktable. A separate entrance from that of the house leads to a compound surrounded by walls and iron fences. It faces a narrow lane where kids and dogs chase each other, and where two vehicles cannot pass. The compound is home to 16 people including Jayasiri’s two sons, their wives and a pile of grandchildren. One son drives a rickshaw and the other works in an office. One of his daughters-in-law makes wedding cakes on the side. There are also five students from a nearby university whose rent payments add to the family’s modest income.

Jayasiri became blind from cataracts when he was five. His parents took him to a “native doctor” but the treatment resulted in total blindness. “Health facilities have been improved and awareness programs are there to say that if anything happens to eyes, don’t go to a native doctor; there are hospitals everywhere, you should take treatment from hospitals,” he says.

He was lucky. At age eight he attended a school for the blind and eventually went to a university. He taught at a school for the blind for 19 years. Then he worked as an English language stenographer, and then for a factory. Disturbances from political instability made traveling to and from his job by train impossible. He had no choice but to quit.

But Jayasiri’s experience is the exception. “There are a few educated blind who have jobs, who have teaching appointments, but those are few," he says. "Majority of the people are self-employed. They sell wares; go from house to house selling soap, tea leaves, textiles, and things like that. Other than that the employment situation is very grave. When they are unemployed they are a burden to their family, to their parents, to their brothers and sisters. Being without employment means that you are not independent, you depend on others for everything, to take you here and there, for your clothes, for your food and everything; you always have to look for charity when you’re unemployed."

The Blind Citizens' Front has other activities as well. “We find employment for people, both in the open market and self-employment. We give them a little money to buy their wares and things like that. Once a year we see how they have improved."

Jayasiri and those members who know English read braille magazines sent to them by people in the United States. He reads the comments that sometimes appear asking why blind people in developing countries are always asking for donations. He explains that in Sri Lanka at least, the little money people have to give to others is donated to the temple and not to organizations or people directly. He also says that a single person’s generosity can make a huge difference. For example, an individual from the United States sends him braille paper that has been embossed on one side and is no longer needed. He uses the other side of the paper for brailling his personal notes.

Things are changing for blind people in Sri Lanka, but progress is extremely slow. There is more awareness about the capabilities of blind people than ever before and they are slowly gaining a foothold in employment. But unless the government changes its economic priorities, groups like the Blind Citizens' Front will continue looking outside Sri Lanka for their sustenance.

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